At the unlikely crossroads of dating games, space opera, and real-time combat sims sits Infinite Space, an ambitious DS offering from the Platinum Games crew (best known for console titles like Viewtiful Joe, Okami, God Hand and Madworld) and the lesser-known Nude Maker team (Clock Tower, Steel Battalion). You play as Yuri, a young man who dreams of sailing the infinite sea of stars as a “zero-g dog” (think “sea dog,” but in space); he is initially helped in his dream by Nia, a “launcher” whose main occupation is getting budding zero-g dogs off the ground, but she’s just one of several dozen potential crew members that you will encounter as the game progresses.
Yeah, several dozen. The main feature of Infinite Space is its ridiculous depth; in addition to the Chrono Cross-like level of personalities — each with their own strengths and skills that can help them serve as one of over twenty key crew positions (with Yuri permanently assigned to Captain) — there is also a vast array of ship designs, modules, weapons, fighter craft, and other details that will have hardcore stat munchkins slavering. The narrative even branches off at a couple of points, closing off various options for good depending on which way you go, providing an excuse for subsequent replays.
Not that you’re likely to have the time for a second or third run through the game, as your first play-through will take you around forty hours at the bare minimum; if you’re not opposed to grinding for cash, experience, and fame that number could easily increase substantially. There is a lot of game contained in that tiny cartridge.
And yet, ironically, there isn’t a whole lot to actually do during all of that time. A large portion of your time will be spent simply managing your fleet. Each blueprint you obtain allows you to build a new ship, if you can afford it, and each ship has its own unique space for modules. Unfortunately, you can’t discover how much space (and in what configuration) until you actually build the ship, which creates a lot of unnecessary save-loading as you experiment with your dizzying options. And of course as you progress in your adventure you will gain access to newer modules in addition to new ships, which further compounds the issue. Once you’re done with all of that micro-managing, you’ll find yourself spending even more time navigating dialogue trees and reading responses a paltry three lines at a time (while the upper screen does absolutely nothing but show a picture of Yuri, in a fascinating misuse of the DS’s capabilities).
Fortunately the game isn’t entirely stats and tedium. Like any space story worth its laser beams, you will frequently encounter enemy ships (often pirates) in combat. The real-time action seems simple on the surface, as you only need to concern yourself with the distance between your two fleets and not with the other two dimensions of travel and the primary commands have a rock/paper/scissors-like relationship (barrages deal triple the damage of normal attacks, but can be negated by dodging — which makes you more vulnerable to normal attacks); most of the strategy comes from managing your command gauge, which builds over time (and can be increased by the abilities of your crew and/or modules) and is consumed at different rates by the various commands. You can see your opponent’s approximate command gauge level as it changes (and presumably the AI sees yours in the same way), allowing you some insight as to what they’re up to. Combined with the positioning to place (or keep) your opponents in range of your weapons (which have both maximum and minimum values), this creates an oddly compelling sort of cat-and-mouse strategy that can be brutal on rookies who aren’t on top of things.
Perhaps more important, however, is the formation of the enemy fleet. Ships in the back of the formation are harder to hit than ones up front; each potential target has an indicator that tells you this information and you can switch targets with a simple tap, but you often start combat locked on to the enemy flagship — which is usually in the very back row (and where yours should be as well once you gain the ability to command more than one ship, since losing your flagship equals Game Over). Not realizing this key fact is the number one source of frustration early on, especially when it comes time for your first boss battle — and the game does a pretty poor job of explaining it to you.
In fact, the game does a pretty poor job of explaining everything to you, which is easily its biggest failing. Some information can be found in the manual (including the formation thing), but even if you’re one of the rare gamers who even opens those these days it’s still not all that clear. Buried on page 15 of the manual is a link to an online “commander’s guide” PDF that does a much better job of explaining a lot of how the game works, but there are still tons of little things that aren’t covered. Some of them can be found by navigating the in-game Help system (which is unfortunately on its own subscreen instead of being accessible from anywhere), but not all of them — and the in-game Help is incomplete at first, with virtually no indication of when certain topics become available as the game progresses.
There are a few other shortcomings with the game as well. The most notable is a lack of any sort of mission log; if you put the game down for a while and pick it up again later (or are just too busy grinding) you can easily forget what it is you were supposed to be doing. Not helping matters is the large number of oddly-named planets, regions, and characters you will encounter, which can be tough to keep straight even if you’re paying attention. This can have a negative effect on following the plot as well, but overall is a fairly minor problem. There’s also melee combat (more r/p/s), which you can (eventually) enter via ship combat at close range, when it isn’t disabled, but also occurs while investigating various structures on the ground; these ground encounters consist of nondescript passages that seemingly go on forever, are really uninspired, and are all identical no matter where you find them.
Completing the game will unlock two additional play modes. Loading your completed save file lets you start over in a New Game+, which gives you the opportunity to explore the other branches of the adventure while retaining the experience levels of your crew members (but nothing else, like all of your blueprints). There’s also Extra mode, which is an all-combat variation on the game; you start with 10,000 credits and have to hunt down various boss fights within your current region before you can move on to the next one.
In the end, what you get out of Infinite Space is dependent on what you’re willing to invest into it. The combat can become repetitive and is the only factor breaking up the dialogue and management bits, so if you’re not into that kind of thing you’re probably going to find the game boring at times. Even if you like the heavy stat-managing element you might run afoul of the various other weaknesses. If you can look past all of that? Have fun losing a crazy amount of your free time to the life of a zero-g dog.
Plays like: Star Wars: the dating sim
Pros: incredible depth and length of play; deep replay options for those inclined
Cons: poor documentation; at times tedious game play